At 16, I made a decision that would alter my life completely. I decided I was going to adopt Neal. Neal was in his mid-sixties at this point and I’m not entirely sure how he felt about me worming my way into his life and staying. In the four years between me claiming him and his death, he gave me three books, a folder full of letters, and an education in love. Not romantic love, but in love that burns like a divine fire. Clean, brutal, indomitable, ferocious, and necessary. One of the books he left me was John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction. I’ve been carrying it around this week, reading a little bit here and there over breakfast. Today I came across this passage:
“Love” is of course another of those embarrassing words, perhaps a word even more embarrassing than “morality,” but it’s a word no aesthetician ought carelessly to drop from his vocabulary. Misused as it may be by pornographers and the makers of greeting-cards, it has, nonetheless, a firm, hard-headed sense that names the single quality without which true art cannot exist.
This love, it should be noted, cannot be for the sound of your own voice, the seductive call of your own cleverness. Write for love. Not to win the heart of a lover, not necessarily a romance novel in which all comes right at the end. Write because you see something muscular and beautiful in human tenacity, in the will to go on. Write because there is this thing in you that is always struggling towards making something better like a compass needle always pulls north. Write because there isn’t enough compassion in the world. Write because fiction enables truths that would otherwise be batted down by our defenses against discomfort. Write because it’s a gift. Not a talent, not something special that’s been given to you, but something special that you can give. Writing doesn’t make you special, it doesn’t make you important. The only thing it says about you is that you showed up relentlessly and you tried.
Incidentally, showing up and trying are my two favorite human traits and as far as I can tell are the greatest expression of love we’re capable of.
All the advice on writing books that are out there, they focus on the mechanics. Grammar and plotting and the hows. There isn’t enough talk about the importance of “why” in writing. I believe you can be technically proficient, plotted perfectly, and flawlessly executed, but if your why is to congratulate yourself on how brilliant you are, you aren’t going to change anyone’s life. Probably not even your own.
In short, I believe it is impossible to write something enduring without love. Anyone can learn the how. Get your why straight if you want to change the world with words.